The Life of an Airborne Ranger, Book Two by Michael B. Kitz-Miller

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Michael Kitz-Miller, the author of The Life of an Airborne Ranger, Book Two: Take Care of Your Men (Xlibris, 388 pp., $29.99, hardcover; $19.99, paper; $3.99 e book), informs us in his notes that the book is a work of fiction. Or as his puts it: “It is a military novel in a historic context.”

The book starts prior to the Vietnam War and continues with the conflicts in Grenada, Somalia, Panama, Kuwait, and Iraq. The author (who died July 29, 2019, at age 78) fictionalized battles and changed them to fit the character of the characters. Kitz-Miller, who enlisted in the Army and served for three years as buck sergeant with the 101st Airborne Division, used Wikipedia as his library to try to get his facts right.

The 44th Airborne Division is fictional and the organizational structure of the 75th Airborne Division has been changed to fit the story. The author credits Ayn Rand and her fiction as his inspiration and her philosophy of Objectivism as being important in forming some of his ideas.

This book is carefully composed of 55 short chapters, most of which begin with the one of the names of the two main characters: Jack and Mary Clarke. Mary Clarke is the beloved wife of the book’s hero, Jack. He is the most decorated hero of his war—or of any war that ever took place.

Jack is very modest about his decorations and often chooses not to wear them, which causes drama and discord. His modesty brings trouble to him and to those around him. But that is just the way he is. His beginnings are modest and he is self-deprecating to a fault—a fault that makes the San Andreas shrink to the size of a paper napkin by comparison.

Jack moves up to be a commander with the 75th Airborne Rangers and runs a big FTX at Ft. Benning. Daring maneuvers and key operations bring him new promotions and accolades. Mary Clarke completes her doctorate and fills large lecture halls with students eager to hear her dazzling lectures.

These heroes choose not to have any children so that their contributions to society are not diluted in any way. Mary discovers that she has inherited millions and has the responsibility for a complex estate. We part with the couple while they are discussing social metaphysics.

If you loved book number one, you’ll love this one also.  A third book is on the way.

The author’s website is kitz-millerbooks.com

–David Willson

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Letters to Pat by Bill Eshelman

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Retired Marine Corps Major Gen. Bill Eshelman dedicates his book, Letters to Pat: A Year in the Life of a Vietnam Marine (Koehler Books, 182 pp. $26.95, hardcover; $16.95, paper; $7.99, Kindle), to his wife who “lived through the war” by reading the letters he wrote home.

Eshelman graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1959, then went into the Marines, becoming an instructor at The Basic School at Quantico. He enjoyed training young Marines to lead other young Marines, but once the men were sent to Vietnam, he decided to serve there as well. Eshelman hoped he could become an infantry company commander to be tested in combat.

Since he already was a captain, Eshelman feared he would be promoted too quickly to get much time in as a CO, so before being sent to Vietnam he requested training at Ft. Bragg’s school for advisers. He believed if he could be an adviser to a South Vietnamese unit it would ensure that he got more of a “first-hand look at the war.”

Arriving outside Da Nang in October of 1967 Eshelman was determined to relay his day-to-day thoughts on the war as he was living it by penning regular letters to his wife. In his book he adds notes from his combat journal to the two hundred or so letters.

His first job was as a battalion logistics officer, resupplying all battalion units with ammo, explosives, and other materiel. The battalion’s main mission seemed to be keeping the Da Nang airfield from being rocketed and keeping Highway 1 open to the north.

Being promoted to major, Eshelman became especially upset over all the paperwork his job entailed “to appease higher HQ.” Much of it involved incidents between Marines and Vietnamese citizens. Eshelman thought the cases were often unfair because the Marines were always required to prove their innocence.

Before long, he was sent south to III Corps to be a senior adviser with the 4th Battalion Vietnamese Marine Corps (VNMC). He was happy serving with Vietnamese troops because he knew that if “the war if it is to be won,” the South Vietnamese would have to do it, “not the U.S. Marine Corps.” During his time in Vietnam Eshelman saw combat action in all four Corp areas and was constantly running into men he knew back in the States.

During the major 1968 Tet Offensive Eshelman saw a great deal action in both Saigon and Hue. He used these letters home as a “way of letting off steam.” There were times when he and his men took part in operations in which they “swam more than we walked,” he writes, and times they had the simple pleasure of eating a fresh pineapple.

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Capt. Eshelman in Vietnam

He left South Vietnam in October 1968 for Thailand and carried one big takeaway from the war. Eshelman believed that the American advisory effort probably prolonged the war, maybe making it unwinnable, because it failed to give the South Vietnamese military a big enough role in over-all decision making.

This is an important addition to books covering what happened in the Vietnam War in 1967-68 and to those dealing with the relationship between the U.S. and South Vietnamese military.

The book’s website is letterstopat.com

–Bill McCloud

Lost in Dalat by James Luger

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Vietnam War veteran James Luger’s new novel, Lost in Dalat: The Courage of a Family Torn by War (High Flight, 298 pp. $12.95; paper; $5.95, Kindle), introduces the reader to Meggon Mondae (love that name), whose father went missing in action in Vietnam just before she was born.

The story begins as Meggon’s seven-year marriage ends and she finds herself thinking of her father whose body was never recovered after one of the last big battles of the war in early 1972. Having a father she never knew listed as an MIA in the war left “a hole” in her heart.

The first few pages make pretty uncomfortable reading as we witness a marriage spat that nearly turns into a declaration of domestic war. Finding herself in the throes of a messy divorce—and with additional problems at work—Meggon begins thinking more and more of her father. She enlists the help of a veteran who places a notice in the locator section of a veterans magazine asking if anyone remembers serving with her father.

After a few weeks, she hears from a man who tells her that he saw “where he fell.” The veteran says it was in the Central Highlands, just west of the mountain city of Dalat. He says he last saw her father trying to help an injured buddy before they disappeared after a grenade explosion.

With this information, Meggon ponders going to Vietnam to visit the general location where her father fell. She hopes this will help her connect with him more. Meggon’s first inkling of going to Vietnam doesn’t come until nearly half-way through the book

Traveling alone, she arrives in Ho Chi Minh City and quickly learns that most Vietnamese people still call it Saigon. She also discovers that what she had always known as the Vietnam War is actually is called the American War in Vietnam by the Vietnamese. A highlight of this book is Luger’s depiction of food and drink and details of Vietnamese life today.

Once she gets to Dalat, Meggon deals with people who cheat her, only to be victimized by a shakedown at the hands of a local government official—not once, but twice. She’s informed that the corruption is “a system we are used to.” Wanting to immediately return home, Meggon ends up being befriended by someone who takes her to a small mountain known locally as “Massacre Mountain” because of the number of American soldiers who died on it one night.

She’s told: “You are standing on the same ground your father walked on.”

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Jim Luger

At that point the story begins to go off the rails, though anything can happen in a fictional world. Our heroine becomes romantically entangled with a local businessman, sets off an international incident, and—with bullets flying—desperately tries to escape the country.

She tells one character, “If you want to fight until we’re both destroyed, then let’s go.”

The story is well-told and the book is well written, yet it remains an “entertainment” and does nothing to advance the story of our nation’s Vietnam War experience.

Jim Luger is a life member of Vietnam Veterans of America. His website is jamesluger.com

–Bill McCloud

From the West Side to the Wardroom by Matthew J. Coffey

With the days dwindling down to a precious few for many Vietnam War veterans, the urge to tell all grows more compelling. A third generation sailor, Mathew J. Coffey, fulfills a need to recognize his family’s military achievements in his new memoir, From the West Side to the Wardroom: An Irish-American Journey (Xlibris, 142 pp. $26.95, hardcover; $16.95, paper; $3.99 Kindle).

Coffey, a member of Vietnam Veterans of America, spent his one-year, 1968-69 tour of duty as a lieutenant aboard the USS Caddo Parish (LST-515), a World War II Class 491 LST that arrived in Vietnam in December 1965. Coffey recounts his wartime experiences in the middle part of the book. After four years of active duty, Coffey spent twenty years in the Navy Reserves and retired as a Captain.

With three-to-four page vignettes, Coffey sandwiches descriptions of his Navy hitch between slices of stories about his pre-war and post-war lives. He also includes details of the war-time achievements of his grandfather and father, veterans of the two World Wars.

To me, the book’s greatest value lies in Coffey’s reflections about people, events, and places from the past. For example, he vividly and evocatively describes a tough Italian Catholic chaplain, a bizarre funeral, and, of course, his ship’s wardroom. His short stories provide an education in themselves.

The Caddo Parrish in Vung Tau, South Vietnam, 1969

The book concludes with “The Pass Down Log”—a stage play with a cast of Matthew, his wife, father, and grandfather—which zeroes in on dynamic times in the family’s  history.

All proceeds from sale of the book go to an eighty-two-year-old priest—one of Coffey’s former high school teachers in Mineola, New York—who today works with poor people in Vietnam.

—Henry Zeybel

Triumphant Warrior by Peter D. Shay

In 1966, the United States Navy begged eight battle-weary UH-1B gunship helicopters from the U.S. Army. They re-named them Helicopter Attack (Light) Squadron Three Seawolves; shipped them to Vinh Long in Vietnam; and thereby established air support for inland riverine operations of the Navy’s fiberglass-hulled Patrol Boat River fleet. When CDR Robert W. Spencer arrived at his headquarters in Vung Tau to lead the Seawolves, no other Navy officer was assigned there, so he essentially reported to himself.

Peter D. Shay tells that story as a departure point in Triumphant Warrior: The Legend of the Navy’s Most Daring Helicopter Pilot (Casemate, 240 pp. $32.95, hardcover; $17.99, Kindle). In it, he provides the history of HA(L)3 and glorifies the exploits of LCDR Allen E. “Wes” Weseleskey.

Back then, Shay flew with the Seawolves. Today, he specializes in putting together Vietnam War-era oral histories for the Naval Historical Center. An avid researcher, he conducted nearly fifty interviews with former squadron mates for Triumphant Warrior.

Shay’s narrative jumps from person to person but still develops personalities. Every man is vitally alive on these pages, often with death nearby. Similarly, he jumps from event to event without missing a beat. He grabs your attention and does not let go.

Shay describes the difficulties inherent in organizing a new squadron to perform a specialized task. He provides lessons in how to—or perhaps how not to—organize and run a war. The unit suffered growing pains from too much enthusiasm with too little experience, which caused avoidable crashes, accidents, and fires. Along with detailing the demands of the unit’s task, Shay tells the story of Weseleskey.

Practically upon arrival in HA(L)3, Weseleskey was awarded two Distinguished Flying Crosses for a couple of gutsy close support missions. Then he pre-empted his commander’s authority, lost his slot, and was exiled to a desk, even though his misstep improved the squadron’s combat capability.

After two months of processing paperwork, Weseleskey returned to the cockpit as an assistant OIC. He focused on improving the combat skills of the unit’s least-experienced pilots until the Viet Cong attacked Vinh Long at the start of the 1968 Tet Offensive.

Shay recalls long-ago events as if they happened yesterday, which adds a sense of urgency to his writing. He recreates the 1968 Tet Offensive as if he is still surprised by it. Most revealingly, he provides a list of high-ranking leaders who daydreamed or actually slept through the January 31 Tet kickoff.

Both Navy and Army helicopters operated from Vinh Long, so pilots and crewmen turned into infantrymen when the Viet Cong overran the airfield. Shay describes the attack using the recollections of dozens of people, including the NVA general who led the Viet Cong. His cross-section of memories produces a lucid picture of the frantic pace of the fighting.

Weseleskey led the action on the ground and also flew forty-six missions during the next two weeks. His ultimate heroics, though, came a month later while flying support for surrounded ARVN troops and rescuing two wounded Army Ranger advisers and a wounded ARVN soldier.

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Weseleskey and Shay

To pick up the three men, Weseleskey performed flying feats that violated most of his squadron commander’s restrictions. Subsequently, the commander placed Weseleskey under arrest and threatened him with a court martial. Shay’s description of the action and its aftermath provides a wealth of information for arguments about judgment, leadership, and awards.

Eventually, Weseleskey received the Navy Cross. He retired as a captain after thirty years of service. In the book, Shay keeps the discussion alive—forever, if he has his way—making a case that Weseleskey deserves the Medal of Honor.

HA(L)3 was decommissioned on March 16, 1972. The Navy Reserve, however, commissioned two new helicopter attack squadrons in 1976 and 1977. Modified versions of those units have flown special warfare and search-and-rescue missions in Middle East operations.

—Henry Zeybel

Two Suns of the Southwest by Nancy Beck Young

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“The chief difference between Goldwater and Johnson,” writes Nancy Beck Young, “was the former wanted to be right and the latter President.”

In her new book, Two Suns of the Southwest: Lyndon Johnson, Barry Goldwater, and the 1964 Battle Between Liberalism and Conservatism (University Press of Kansas, 304 pp., $34.95, hardcover; $34.95, e book), Young analyzes the 1964 presidential election between these two distinct Southwestern personalities—and their diametrically different visions for the future of America.

Nancy Beck Young is a professor of history at the University of Houston and the author of many books on American history. They include Why We Fight: Congress and the Politics of World War II and Forgotten Feminist: Lou Henry Hoover as First Lady.

This accessible, succinct book (207 pages of text) is billed as the “first full account of this critical election and its legacy for U.S. politics.” Despite its concision, the book is thorough and well researched, though Young at times relies too heavily on secondary sources.

She starts with the 1952 election of Republican Dwight Eisenhower and concludes with an embittered Goldwater unwilling to concede to Johnson on election night 1964. Her depiction of the Republican Party regrouping around the moderate Eisenhower in the mid-1950s is somewhat inflated, as the schism between the moderate and conservative wings of the party would fester and manifest itself in 1964.

The book mostly ascribes to the conventional academic orthodoxy on conservatism and liberalism, which weakens the overall thesis. When Johnson, for example, abides the overt racism of the all-white Mississippi delegation at the 1964 Democratic Convention, Young writes that he was being “pragmatic.” And she sees Johnson’s reaching out to disaffected Southern voters by employing the Eastern elite straw man as unifying and expansive. When Goldwater does the same thing, Young says he is appealing to the electorate’s basest instincts .

In drawing a distinction between the two candidates, Young sporadically indulges in both overstatement and contradiction. She writes that LBJ’s message was “universal” and his liberalism was “consensus;” whereas the Republicans looked to “destroy.” Johnson is lauded for embarking on “lawmaking in a nonpartisan, statesmanlike way,” but then we learn that this statesman describes his strategy for cajoling votes by saying: “somehow I gotta get my hand under their dress.”

Young compares Johnson to Eisenhower in seeking to forge a “mainstream, moderate political movement,” but later she discredits LBJ for ignoring the Democratic Party apparatus, and deems him the country’s “most liberal president.”

The book focuses almost exclusively on domestic politics and policy, which accurately describes the race, but Young misses an opportunity to explore the election’s foreign-policy ramifications. In her overview of the Kennedy-Johnson Administration, for example, there is little discussion of the Bay of Pigs, the Berlin Crisis, or the wars in Vietnam and Laos. The tremendous irony of Johnson’s position as the candidate of peace and considered judgment and his later decision to steeply escalate the Vietnam War is not analyzed.

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Nancy Beck Young

Though her “sun” allegory can become a bit tiresome and forced (Johnson’s “sun of inclusivity,” and Goldwater’s sun as “dark”), Young’s conclusion about Goldwater’s desire to be right and Johnson’s to be President is an exceptionally apt analysis of the race. Young is proficient in detailing and explaining the ideologies and personalities of the two candidates, but can over conflate the two. Goldwater, that is, lost the race in part because of his self-described “extremism,” but much more so because he was a horrible political candidate for national office.

Did Barry Goldwater’s ideas ultimately defeat Lyndon Johnson’s? Perhaps, but Goldwater’s form of conservatism was given credibility due to government mendacity that started with Johnson’s handling of Vietnam.

Notwithstanding these critiques, this important and thoughtful book carefully examines an election that because of the inadequacy of Barry Goldwater as a candidate—and the rout by Johnson—is often overlooked.

–Daniel R. Hart

Preston by Philip McKinney

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Philip McKinney served in the U.S. Air Force, including a tour of duty in 1967-68 at Tan Son Nhut Air Base in South Vietnam. His novel, Preston (168 pp., $20, paper; $7.19, Kindle), is set in the 1970s in the titular fictional Michigan town.

The main problem with the book for me was that it had no page numbers. Also, I learned far more about the town of Preston than I wanted or needed to know. It’s a small town with some fabulous scenery in the northwestern section of Lower Michigan. The most recent thing that happened there that was of interest to me took place 11,000 years ago when the last glaciers withdrew from the area.

One of the narrators of  this novel loved his job working for a newspaper in Traverse City about forty miles away from Preston. Then he moved to Preston. He was a little ahead of the so-called Boomers and when he attended Michigan State in East Lansing, and so neither the draft nor the Vietnam War had become controversial.  By the time the war and the draft became an issue, he had finished his degree, gotten married, and had a child.

The war does not loom large in this book. Another narrator —an Air Force Vietnam War veteran—only briefly refers to war in a few conversations. That makes the novel essentially a biography of the town of Preston. It is easy to read and moves right along. I’ve never read another book like it, and I’m not sure I feel a need to do so.

I recommend this book highly to those who wish to read a book that is unlike any other you most likely ever have read.

The book’s lack of page numbers annoyed at first, but then I got used to it.

–David Willson